Every year during Spring and Summer, I look forward to a day trip or weekend getaway to Big Sur along the iconic California coast. The coastal beauty of Big Sur is truly a nature lover’s paradise and a photographer’s dream… I’m so lucky to live in the Bay Area and be able to visit often! In this post, I’ll share with you my picks for the most beautiful spots and the best things to do in Big Sur, as well as the perfect day trip itinerary. This list includes the famous Bixby Bridge and the McWay Falls waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, as well as some hidden gems you may not have heard of!
These places capture the natural and rugged beauty of the area so well, and most of them can all be visited on a leisurely day. In fact, five of the six areas covered here are all located within 30 minutes of each other. I’ve also included lunch recommendations for a couple of Big Sur restaurants with spectacular views, as well as some hotels and weather tips. Please note – If you’re planning a visit to the area, please be sure to check the park websites (linked below) for their current status!
The pictures in this post were taken by me and Ken over the past couple of years. 😊
Big Sur, California Coastal Paradise
Big Sur is known as one of the most scenic stretches of undeveloped coastline in the United States. It’s a rugged and mountainous 90-mile section of the Central Coast of California along Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH) south of the Carmel Highlands with unparalleled coastal beauty. The name comes from the Spanish “el sur grande” or Big South, referring to its position 25 miles south of Monterey, California. The northern part of Big Sur is about a two-hour drive from San Francisco, making it a perfect Bay Area day trip!
Big Sur is a region without formal boundaries or government – it’s more emotion than cartography.Big Sur Visitor Bureau
Before you go, please be aware that Highway 1 is a two-lane mountain road full of twists and turns. If you’re prone to car sickness as I am, I recommend getting a good night’s sleep, having a good breakfast, and avoid looking at your phone if you’re a passenger. I also use a motion sickness wristband which helps me a lot!
Visitor tip – Expect light to heavy fog and chilly weather in this coastal area in the mornings regardless of the season. The fog should clear up by mid-day if the sun is out. Make sure to dress in layers!
The Best Things to Do in Big Sur California
This map of Big Sur shows my picks for the most beautiful spots and best things to do in Big Sur It includes taking in the views of the famous Bixby Creek Bridge, seeing the spectacular waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, enjoying the coastal beauty along the Garrapata Trail, and seeing the wildlife at Point Lobos. You can see everything in one full day, or you can split it up into several trips!
1. McWay Falls Waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
The first time I saw McWay Falls and the surrounding cove, I was stunned and so surprised that this waterfall is in California and not in Hawaii! The beautiful shade of turquoise blue waves rolling in and out of the cove is unreal and the sandy beach is flawlessly untouched. The 80 foot waterfall itself may not be large, but it seems like a scene out of paradise!
The waterfall is located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park next to Highway 1 and can be viewed from the ½-mile round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail. There is no access to the cove and waterfall itself due to hazardous conditions, but the panoramic views of the cove and the Pacific Ocean from the trails are truly spectacular, especially at sunset.
McWay Falls is the farthest south of the sights on my list. It’s 35-45 minutes south of Bixby Creek Bridge. There’s a parking lot with a $10 fee that will also give you access to all other State Parks for the day.
2. Rocky Point Restaurant – Big Sur Restaurant with a View!
Rocky Point Restaurant may just have the best coastal views of any restaurant along the Big Sur coast, and it’s somewhat of a hidden gem! To me, the waters here seem exceptionally beautiful, and the views are truly stunning. The restaurant and the rocky coastline below are framed beautifully by the red flowers that the restaurant maintains. The restaurant has both indoor seating and plenty of outdoor seating on their beautiful patio. (It also has one of the few restrooms in the area.) Rocky Point is a great place for a walk after lunch as well. It’s just 2 minutes south of Garrapata Beach, the next on my list!
July 2021 update – Rocky Point Restaurant is currently closed until further notice. Thank you to reader Matthew for the update. Hopefully it will find a new owner and reopen in the future!
3. Garrapata Trail and Beach
Just 2 minutes from Rocky Point Restaurant is Garrapata Beach, which makes up the southern portion of Garrapata State Park. The coastal Garrapata Trail next to Garrapata Beach is covered with yellow wildflowers in the Spring and Summer (the picture below were taken in late June) and is a fantastic place to enjoy the stunning coastal scenery. The soft yellow and green tones complement the blue-grey coastal waters so beautifully. I could spend hours just enjoying the views here alone. Ken had to drag me away from here last time!
This area is also known for having stunning white calla lily flowers in the Spring! This trail is just a short walk from the Garrapata State Beach Parking Lot.
4. Bixby Creek Bridge
Just a few minutes south of Garrapata Beach and Rocky Point Restaurant is Bixby Creek Bridge, an engineering marvel that’s one of the most famous landmarks of Big Sur. The bridge can be seen from multiple viewpoints, both north and south of the bridge itself. It’s one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world and perches 260 feet above the bottom of a steep canyon carved by Bixby Creek. Honestly, just looking at it makes my knees weak!
5. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
At the northern tip of the Big Sur coast is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a beautiful hidden treasure that’s one of my favorite places for nature viewing. Just a short walk into the park is the easy and very scenic 0.8-mile Bird Island Trail. Along this trail, you’ll be able to see lots of wildlife, including sea lions, sea otters, lots of cormorants, western gulls, and many other types of birds, especially in the Spring. You may also see migrating gray whales in the area from December to May!
Bird Island is named for the large sea bird colony found there in Spring and Summer. Hundreds of Brandt’s cormorants nest close together. On the way to Bird Island, you’ll pass by the stunning deep blue-green waters of China Cove. In the Spring, this area is home to many harbor seals nursing their newborn pups. The park website has an interactive map here.
Bird Island Trail also passes by the pristine Gibson’s Beach, accessible via a steep staircase. See picture above!
Bonus: Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant
The Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant is technically located in the Monterey Peninsula just north of Big Sur, but I had to include this as a bonus place to visit because it’s so special!
For dinner in a lovely, idyllic and truly unique setting, or for just a quick stop, the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant should be a part of your trip, if only to see the beautiful grounds and large field of grazing sheep that they maintain. The vast grounds here with views of the distinctive California coast tree line feel like a private, peaceful hideaway. This 1800s ranch was one of the first dairies of California and was restored by former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
Big Sur Day Trip Itinerary
If you’re coming from the San Francisco Bay Area and looking for a leisurely day trip (my preferred type of trip!), I recommend the following itinerary:
- Start at Point Lobos in the morning for some peaceful nature-viewing.
- Go for a walk along the scenic beach-side Garrapata Trail, just 10 minutes south of Point Lobos.
- Stop at the former Rocky Point Restaurant to enjoy the spectacular coastline views.
- Head to Bixby Bridge nearby (5 minutes south of Rocky Point Restaurant) and check out a few of the viewpoints and stop for some obligatory photos!
- Have lunch at the wonderful Big Sur Bakery, about 20 minutes south of Bixby Bridge. They have delicious fresh bread, savory pastries, and wood-fired pizza! I literally had all my meals here one time when I was camping nearby and loved it soooo much! They’re currently open for lunch Wednesday to Sunday, from noon to 3 pm.
- McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is about 20 mins south of the Big Sur Bakery.
If time permits:
- Nepenthe restaurant for dinner. They’re famous for their terrace views, but there may be a wait to be seated unless you have reservations (TripAdvisor reviews here). They’re currently open from 11:30 am to 10 pm. Make sure to bring warm clothing for the evening!
- Mission Ranch Hotel & Restaurant
Big Sur Weekend Getaway Itinerary
For a weekend getaway, I suggest spending more time at the spots listed for the day trip itinerary, and also including the very charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea in your itinerary! And if you’re visiting in the Spring, make sure to not miss the spectacular purple flowers of Pacific Grove!
Big Sur Hotel Recommendations
Ken and I have stayed at the Intercontinental The Clement Monterey (TripAdvisor reviews here) several times for our weekend trips to Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula. It’s in a very convenient location just across from the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, and I just love the sophisticated coastal decor so much. If you plan on visiting the aquarium, plan on spending half a day there, it’s an amazing place!
For a special weekend, consider a stay at the secluded Hyatt Carmel Highlands (TripAdvisor reviews here), perched on a hillside in the Carmel Highlands with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean from their ocean view rooms and restaurants. You may not want to leave such a stunning place!
Big Sur Road Trip Tips
Most of the Big Sur coastline has few facilities such as restaurants, supermarkets, stores, or gas stations. This helps to maintain it’s unspoiled rugged nature, but it also means you need to be really prepared for your visit! Here are a few tips for your trip:
Download area maps onto your phone before you leave, since you’ll likely have very limited cell phone reception along the coast! Or, use a car gps navigation system that doesn’t rely on cell reception, such as the Garmin Nuvi, which we’ve brought with us on all of our U.S. and international road trips.
Gas up in Monterey before you go any further south (assuming you’re coming from the Bay Area).
Highway 1 is a two-lane mountain road full of twists and turns. If you’re prone to car sickness as I am, I recommend getting a good night’s sleep, having a good breakfast, and bringing a motion sickness wristband with you. I’ve been using it for years and it does help me.
Pack food and snacks from home even if you have lunch plans, because you never know if your plans will change and you can’t make it! Plus, running around in this coastal paradise takes a lot of energy! We use a plug-in electric cooler for the car for all our summer road trips and love it. (No ice is needed but we usually put a sealed ice pack in anyway.)
Or, pick up some sandwiches and other picnic items at the Whole Foods Market in Monterey. Make sure to pack your own utensils from home! Also, what better way to show your love for California than with this super-cute “I Love You California” tote bag?
The weather is very unpredictable, typically starting out cold and foggy in the mornings and warming up in the afternoon. Make sure to dress in layers, bring your sunscreen, sunglasses and also a wool hat and coat!
The California coast is beautiful – don’t forget to bring your camera! I use my iPhone a lot, but I also love having my full-frame Nikon D750 DSLR with me. I love having the ability to better edit my pictures with a full-frame DSLR, especially for non-ideal lighting conditions and for pictures where my face is showing.
California Spring Travel
If you’re looking for more California Spring travel ideas, check out my posts on the Purple Ice Plants of the Monterey Peninsula, the spectacular Flower Fields of Carlsbad Ranch, the Poppy Fields of Mt Diablo State Park, and the beautiful Spring Peach Blossoms in the East Bay!
All of my California travel posts are here!
My Photography Gear
Most of the pictures for this post were taken with a Nikon D750 (new model D780 here) – a fantastic full-frame camera and one of the most economical ones on the market today. My favorite lens is the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G Lens – my go-to lens for portraits and general photography.
Hi, I’m Pansy!
Hello, thanks for stopping by! I’m Pansy, California-based travel + lifestyle blogger, photographer and lover of ALL the pretty flowers! If you browse through my blog, you may notice that most of my travels, DIY and photography center around flowers and nature! 🌸🌼🌿
In addition to this blog, I also create cute & fun journals & activity books. More info on my website at Fleurette Press!
I hope you found this post useful, and I hope you have a wonderful day!